Representation Over Representativeness: The Case for First-Past-the-Post | Matthew Cowley

Aside from the arguments around its traditional place in our political structure, there are several arguments in favour of First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Whilst the clamour for electoral reform has continued to grow, the case for it isn’t as black-and-white as it is being made to seem, and it is about time that those of us opposed to it make the case against it.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour pursuing campaigns against high profile Tory MPs like Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Iain Duncan-Smith, Tory efforts to unseat Tim Farron, Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson, and various other MP-specific targets, it is clear that parties and voters enjoy the opportunity to target individuals with a record they dislike. Under PR systems it becomes much more difficult for individuals to be specifically targeted, as strong MPs will be placed high up the list or placed in seats where the number of members elected is sufficiently large that they would be safe without a massive landslide against them. If we believe that all MPs should be accountable to voters, whether they are the Prime Minister or a backbencher, then we need a system where all individuals are directly elected, essentially eliminating all but the more complex and unworkable of list-based systems.

Additionally, useful studies from mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) systems (where there are both list and constituency MPs) shows that constituency-based MPs are more likely to attempt to influence policy which benefits their constituents, whereas list-based MPs tend to attempt to influence policy which benefits their party’s chances of re-election. What we see from this is that FPTP systems tend to produce MPs who better represent and respond to the interests of the electorate; whereas the only way for list-based MPs to secure their positions and gain promotions is to back the party and the party-line. Therefore, constituents are more likely to be able to successfully lobby their MP in a constituency system, as MPs are more representative and accountable. FPTP provides the smallest constituency size of all possible constituency systems and therefore gives individual electors the most influence over their representatives.

FPTP is also the best system for localised campaign issues. With larger constituency sizes, it becomes more difficult for independents and single issue local campaigners to secure sufficient votes to take office and to be able to fundraise sufficiently to campaign across an entire electoral district. Even the most successful single-issue campaigners under FPTP can struggle to get upwards of 20,000 votes, which would massively limit their ability to get elected in larger constituencies. Likewise, local campaigns with the support of 1,000 or so voters are likely to be much more successful in influencing an MP with a smaller number of constituents than one with a larger number, enabling ordinary people to start campaigns and influence policy, rather than having to rely on more professionally organised campaigns.

Another benefit of FPTP is that it tends to produce strong and stable governments. Whilst this has not, admittedly, been the case in two of the last three elections, majoritarian systems like FPTP have a solid record of delivering majority governments. Why is that a good thing? Well, we’ve seen the popular outcry at the compromises required to make a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition and a Conservative/DUP confidence and supply deal work in 2010 and 2017 respectively. People don’t like compromise on manifesto commitments that they voted for in Britain. If we stick with FPTP then there will be fewer scenarios whereby a major party has to sacrifice key sections of its platform to form a government.

So why don’t people like FPTP?

One of the most common arguments against FPTP is that it incentivises tactical voting by supporters of smaller parties and thereby unfairly disadvantages those groups. This is because FPTP generally creates constituencies where historically between one and three parties have had a shot at winning the seat. What it doesn’t take into account is a simple premise: if voters voted for the party they supported, rather than tactically, then a smaller party might become viable in a specific seat. As that is the case, it seems that major parties have done a fairly good job of campaigning for those votes, particularly given the fact that a number of smaller parties have won seats after sustained campaigning under FPTP. Furthermore, a quick glance at AMS (a form of MMP) elections finds that the number of votes gained by parties in the constituency and list ballots tend to not be particularly dissimilar, suggesting either that tactical voting isn’t a particularly significant problem in constituency seats, or that tactical voting is not dependent on the system being used.

Indeed, there also doesn’t seem to be a credible argument that tactical voting is specific to FPTP at all. If the conditions are the same under an Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Alternative Vote (AV) system then it doesn’t seem any less likely that a voter would vote for the one of the major parties that it preferred. Ranked systems are easily manipulated by tactical voting, whereby voters give their least favoured majorn party candidate the lowest ranking and bump the most likely candidate they can support up the list so as to prevent their least favoured candidate from achieving office. Likewise, in a list system with a threshold there is still a similar incentive for voters to misrepresent their preferences in order to achieve the least-worst realistic outcome. If a voter typically votes for a party that falls below the threshold, there seems to be no reason for them not to cast their ballot instead for their favoured major party, in order to increase that party’s chances of winning more seats, as they would under FPTP.

Finally on tactical voting, it is worth considering systems like AMS where there are constituencies and then top-up lists. Constituency seats are obviously going to be subject to the same tactical voting pitfalls as FPTP, so the only plausible difference here could be in the list system. Lists are prone to tactical voting naturally, as mentioned above, but they have an additional problem under top-up seat systems, which is that larger parties generally do disproportionately badly from the top-up list than smaller parties. Therefore there is a huge incentive for voters to cast their ballots for small parties allied to their major party preference, in order to increase the number of seats gained by their favoured ideological grouping, but creating yet another distortion of preferences.

Representativeness is the other main argument against FPTP, that is to say that the number of seats allocated to parties tends to vary quite significantly from their proportion of the national vote. This is a fairly strong argument that is difficult to rebut. Often it results from local disparities and is therefore difficult to put right with regionalised list systems. The only viable solution for representativeness would be a national list system, but that would be incredibly problematic for individual legislative accountability and lobbying on local issues. If people would prefer poorer accountability and representation in favour of a feeling of Parliament being more representative, then there is a conversation to be had. But if people feel that representatives representing them is more important than them being representative of them, with the policy-making benefits that come with it, then FPTP is the only choice.

Other criticisms of FPTP include the fact that votes are wasted, which is again true to an extent, but this is true for nearly every electoral system. Under list systems there are thresholds, under ranked systems the second preferences of small party voters are considered but major party voters’ ranking preferences are wasted – this is more an issue with the fact that in a democracy someone has to lose an election than FPTP being a bad system. Another criticism is that it creates an effective elective dictatorship with large majority governments, but given the increased accountability every MP has to their constituents under FPTP, poor policies are unlikely to get through Parliament, regardless of the size of the majority.

So, what are the alternative systems?

There are closed and open list systems, both of which promote party loyalty amongst representatives over constituency representation, without solving the problems of tactical voting and wasted votes. There is AMS and other mixed-member proportionality systems, which have exactly the same problems as the list systems, but with extra confusion and more wasted votes, and the problems of collusion whereby major parties campaign for minor parties that they are allied with to mop up the maximum number of top-up seats and create a massive majority. Then there are the ranked voting systems like AV and STV, which give extra weight to the opinions of small party voters, who get eliminated first and encourage tactical voting to an even greater extent than FPTP (rankings mean that voters can place a greater distortion in their preferences to negatively impact their least favoured of the major parties). Ranked systems are also much more complicated than FPTP, which brings massive educational and infrastructural costs in implementation and management.

Overall, FPTP is a simple, effective, cheap system which leads to better local representation than any other. Electoral systems that enable good representation are far more important than ones that are solely about representativeness. We need a system that balances those two goals, but if we have good representation everyone gets represented, regardless of whether or not they voted for their MP.

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